In most of my columns, I try to employ a bit of humor, or at least attempted humor, to lighten the mood. I once served as the executive officer to a general who told me that a sense of humor, in his view, was the most under-utilized tool in a leader’s toolbox. And so, I’ve tried to inject a bit of levity into nearly every one of my 300+ columns thus far.
Until this one.
A story in Colorado Politics really got my attention. It seems that the president of the Colorado Senate, Leroy Garcia, has introduced a bill aimed at helping his fellow veterans. Senate Bill 129 would create a veteran suicide prevention pilot program by directing the Colorado Department of Human Services to work with non-profits to offer free support to vets and their families that are in crisis. Reporter Joey Bunch, in his reporting, tells the story of Garcia’s own military service, and notes that vets are disproportionally represented in our state’s homeless population and tragically average 43 suicides per 100,000 people, compared to a national average of 32, which is still far too high.
The reason Bunch’s story really hit home with me is that dark thoughts spend far too much time in my own mind, and I worry about my brothers and sisters in arms a great deal.
If you asked me to define myself, I would first tell you that I’m a father and a husband. But the next identifier I would use is that of career military officer and now veteran of the armed services. I was honored to serve over 25 years in the Air Force and I greatly value my time in uniform. It sounds a bit trite, and I don’t mean it to come off that way, but unless you have worn the uniform of the United States military, you cannot fully understand what military service truly and fully means. In teaching cadets at the Air Force Academy for many years, I would ask them what makes our service different from others that help build America every day. They would usually flounder around for an answer, and then I’d offer that only military service has, as its core task, the job of destruction and death. Our willingness to wage violence against our nation’s adversaries sets us apart from the many, many great Americans who improve our nation through their own daily toil. And such efforts come with a cost attached.
Military work, I would tell my students, was fundamentally different from all other, and that is why we end up as a band of brothers and sisters. And that is also why we can end up with special challenges and burdens, which is why Garcia’s bill is such a good idea.
PTSD is not limited to those in uniform, but I would gently offer that it tends to be far more prevalent in the military, and often carries with it a burden of guilt that can lead to the aforementioned dark thoughts. In my own case, I happened to be at the Pentagon on the beautiful sun-washed morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I will never say what I had to see and do that day, but I offered some very minor help and support. But the images of what I saw and heard are forever seared into my memories — hence the later diagnosis of PTSD with dark thoughts and the all-engulfing feelings of guilt. You see, rationally I understand that there were limits to what I could do to help that day, but the mind is not always entirely rational. I feel tremendous guilt that I did not run toward the fire (I had not yet trained up as a first responder) but rather followed orders to evacuate. I know that isn’t rational, but it is real.
Later, while working on vet cases for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, I would work with young men and women fresh from military service in Afghanistan and Iraq, dealing with what they saw and did. They usually tried to hide what they perceived as weakness (as I do) while fretting constantly over what they did or did not do over in the sandbox, and the actions they had to take, and the friends they could not save.
I am likely oversharing here, and I do apologize for that, but this is such an important issue. I am, fortunately, in a situation where the “rational” part of my brain is still in charge, and so while the dark thoughts are always with me, they don’t get to win. But I feel deep and abiding pain for those for whom the dark thoughts win out.
I have heard some complain that we “coddle” vets these days. Heck, back in WWII we just expected vets to suck it up. And many did, but that greatest generation also teemed with PTSD, though they didn’t call it that. The soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen of that conflict never had access to the resources they often needed.
That is a mistake we can fix in the 21st century. I hope SB 129 is promptly passed, signed into law, and becomes an important — and literal — lifeline for my fellow vets. They deserve nothing less.
The national suicide prevention hotline is: 800-273-8255, vets press 1 for immediate help.